Wyoming Jades Revisited
Wyoming Jades Revisited
By Roger Merk, FGA
Pala International is pleased to publish the following article on Wyoming jades by the late Roger Merk. We're grateful to his family for granting us permission to share it with our readers. Roger prepared the article in the summer of 2015, not long before he died. It is a fitting testament to his enthusiasm for a subject that he held dear.
The history of Wyoming jade (nephrite) is very short. There are many urban legends that describe how Chinese railroad laborers discovered Wyoming jade in the late 1800s and sent this fine-grained nephrite back to China. Bob Frey conveyed to me that while he lived in Hong Kong he saw many Chinese jades, carved during the Victorian era, in shops that appeared to be carved from Wyoming jade.
Jade, the Wyoming State gemstone, was first described in the Granite Mountains area of central Wyoming in 1936. Much exploration followed right after the publication in February 1945 of Popular Science containing a short article titled "'Green Gold': How prospectors are finding a fortune in boulders of high-grade American green jade." The most intense jade exploration and mining activity occurred there between about 1940 and 1960.
By the mid-1960s, beautiful green, inexpensive British Columbian nephrite came on the North American market and destroyed the more expensive Wyoming jades. From the mid-1960s to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, there was very little interest in Wyoming jade. Following the 2008 Olympics, a large BC jade Buddha was carved for a small monastery in Australia and the demand for nephrite increased significantly. Concurrently, nephrite carving from Santa Barbara, California to British Columbia increased significantly and was showcased at the annual Big Sur Jade Festival. All these events resulted in a shortage of top quality nephrite being offered for sale. A few jade dealers began bringing more varieties of the best Wyoming jades to the Big Sur Jade Festival, so in the last ten years there has been a revival of interest in these jades.
My interest began in the early 1980s and continues to fascinate me. I make several buying trips to Wyoming annually. One side note: for the past 40-plus years I have looked for a Wyoming jade carved Indian artifact. I have purchased dozens of pieces promised to me as Wyoming jade arrows, for example, but was disappointed with all. The majority of these "Wyoming jade arrowheads" were formed from a greenish chert common in the area. I am almost certain that there are no Wyoming jade artifacts due to difficulty in forming this material with primitive tools.
This article is meant to show the many color varieties of beautiful green to olive green, to some that are almost black as well as the many pattern jades. In addition, a few of the carvings being produced by Western carvers will be shown.
The most important color varieties of Wyoming jade are "Apple green," black, olive, and sage followed by the numerous patterned jades.
Much has been written on these jade exploits such as Marcia K. Branham's Wyoming Jade: A Pioneer Hunter's Story (Russell P. MacFall ed., San Diego: Lapidary Journal, 1980) and numerous articles in Lapidary Journal, Gems and Gemology, and Rock & Gem over the years. These articles are spellbinding in detail, however no one has really taken the time to display these beauties in full color. The past articles either contained dreadful color photos that did not match the magic of the jade specimens or the photos were in smudged black and white. Over the past year, Robert Weldon has taken some great true-color pictures of my best Wyoming jade specimens to show the jade enthusiast what the fuss was all about. This short article will attempt to retrace and bring the Wyoming jade story up to date in full color.
Definitions: Jade wind slicks or slicks are naturally occurring cobbles of jade that have been partially or fully polished by the wind and sand. Some folks use the term ventifacts, which are rocks that have been abraded, pitted, etched, grooved, or polished by wind-driven sand or ice crystals. Jade enthusiasts have often used slicks to apply to particularly attractive jade wind slicks.
Much of the best semi-translucent "apple green" slicks were immediately cut into slabs for use in jewelry making, hence very few of these top grade slicks are still around.
Two different cinder jade pieces are shown above. The one on the left is 6 ounces and the one on the right is 2½ lbs. (Photos: Robert Weldon)
The majority of jade carvers that I sell to are more interested in the best of the fined-grained jades and not so much in the color, but translucency is also very important.
The next color illustrated here is the opaque sage green Wyoming nephrite that ranges from a light sage to a dark, more greenish-blue sage. Below is shown an example of sage green nephrite.
Next are illustrations of several patterned jades, often termed "Bull Canyon" jades from the locality where many of the best patterned jades were found, and also several of the unusual jade colors and patterns rarely seen but much desired by collectors.
I have hundreds of samples of these pattern jades that are each somewhat similar, but very distinct to me.
I conclude this article with several nice carvings recently carved by the large emerging Western jade carvers. One of my favorite pieces is the violin displayed below.
One of the most common modern carvings sold at the Big Sur Jade Festival are thin Wyoming jade earrings. Most of these earrings are 1-2 mm thick and 1½" to 3" in length. The light weight makes for comfortable wear and the thin earrings display the patterns and colors nicely in the bright sun. Several of Robert Carmen's are shown below, however many California carvers are producing similar products.
The future of Wyoming jade is uncertain since the supply is dwarfed by the massive supplies of great green nephrite deposits in British Columbia and the Yukon, in addition to the deposits in Siberia, but there will always be some pieces from Wyoming found in jade collections world-wide.